Three weeks after being elected House speaker, Paul D. Ryan is making his first moves this week to put his stamp on an institution he deemed “broken” in his inaugural address.
Ryan (R-Wis.) is proposing to start with changes to arcane rules inside the House Republican Conference, rejiggering the party’s powerful steering committee to give rank-and-file members more influence over matters like committee assignments at the expense of Ryan’s own power as speaker.
The changes Ryan is pursuing reflect the deep dissatisfaction among many members — especially those first elected in the past five years — with what they saw as the heavy-handed management tactics employed by former speaker John A. Boehner. The House Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-liners that helped force Boehner out, put changes to the steering committee high on their list of demands to be addressed by his successor.
Ryan briefed House Republicans on the proposed changes at a closed-door Tuesday morning conference meeting, with a vote to follow on Thursday.
Republican members and aides familiar with the proposal say that the reform of the steering committee might not be totally complete until January 2017, when the next Congress convenes. But an initial suite of changes could go into effect immediately — including the removal of six powerful standing-committee chairmen from their ex-officio posts on the 33-member steering panel.
The leaders of the six “A committees” — Appropriations, Budget, Energy & Commerce, Financial Services, Rules, and Ways & Means — would not all serve regularly on the steering committee. Instead, there would be a rotation in which a committee chair would vote on an ad hoc basis on matters affecting that particular committee. For example, if the steering committee is deciding on issues involving Ways and Means, the Ways and Means chairman would vote.
Those chairmen are in the uppermost echelon of their party’s seniority and influence, and they rarely clash openly with the party’s elected leadership.
Excluding them from the steering committee is seen as diluting the speaker’s power and increasing the clout of the balance of the panel — primarily the 13 members chosen on the basis of geography and the four members representing the four most recent incoming House classes. To keep the size of the committee constant, six new at-large members would be elected in the coming months; those would become geographic members in the next Congress, elected by the members of individual regions.
Another small but symbolic change would be to reduce the speaker’s voting power slightly, from five votes to four votes. But the speaker would gain the power to appoint one at-large member — someone, one would assume, who would remain loyal during tough votes.
Altogether, the changes might not have a profound effect on the operations of the House Republicans, but they represent a significant gesture of goodwill from Ryan to the members who made Boehner’s life miserable during his last months in office. The tweaks, they hope, will lead to better committee assignments, chairmanships and other benefits for a once-marginalized bunch.
The early reviews of Ryan’s proposal are good: “The feedback I’m getting from both the conservative and more moderate people that were in the room working on it, is that it’s not only a good first step but a good compromise,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Freedom Caucus leader. He added that the way Ryan went about making the changes — by convening a panel and sticking to a strict timeline — also made an impression: “The process gets an A-plus, and there’s not much here in Washington, D.C., that gets an A-plus. It gives me real hope for the future.”
As for the committee chairmen who might see a little of the shine taken off their gavels, they appear to be ready to take one for the team.
“It doesn’t take the shine off anything,” said Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas). “This is such a nebulous issue to the overall construction of the place. … It’s not who’s in the room, despite what people think. We need a process that works well for our members, and that’s what I’m for.”